Halifax ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Navy’s worst peacetime accident

Halifax ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Navy’s worst peacetime accident

HALIFAX — Allan “Dinger” Bell has no idea how long he was in the flames that engulfed the HMCS Kootenay engine room after the destroyer was rocked by an explosion that led to the worst peacetime accident in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Bell was one of 10 men on duty in the engine room 50 years ago when a bearing in the starboard gear box failed, causing the explosion on the morning of Oct. 23, 1969.

Only three of them made it out alive.

“It happened too fast for it to be a shock — time was going so fast it stood still,” Bell said at a Halifax memorial ceremony Wednesday, describing the experience as “hell on earth.”

“I don’t know how long I was in the fire,” he said. “You had … men burning to death, and they wanted to live. It wasn’t a sweet place to be.”

In total, nine crew members were killed and 53 others were injured as fire and toxic smoke filled the vessel, which had been conducting a full-power sea trial in waters off Plymouth, England.

Bell, who was 21 at the time, sustained third-degree burns to nearly half his body.

The 71-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., resident, who was awarded the Canadian Armed Forces Wound Stripe earlier this year, was one of dozens of former crew, families, and dignitaries who attended the ceremony marking the anniversary Wednesday at Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park.

John Montague, a retired navy captain, was a junior officer aboard Kootenay during the disaster. He described the scene on the stricken vessel for the assembled crowd.

“The smoke was so thick and travelled so quickly even the bridge had to be evacuated,” he said. ”The heat from the fire was so intense it actually melted an aluminum ladder in the engine room.”

Montague said there was so much damage in the initial stages following the explosion that the main engine couldn’t be shut down, meaning Kootenay continued to steam ahead “at full speed and completely out of control.”

“Even our communications system was unserviceable and there was no way to contact the other ships in the flotilla since they were over the horizon and completely out of sight.”

Montague said it took about two hours to bring the fire under control, and during that time the crew distinguished itself with numerous acts of “extreme bravery.”

At one point, three of the ship’s divers strapped on their scuba tanks and went below decks to assist in the rescue operations.

One of them was John Womack, who was a 20-year-old able seaman at the time.

“You couldn’t see, and it was hot,” said Womack, who helped pour foam into the engine room from a deck above it.

“We had to exchange (tanks) because the regulators on our diving tanks would get gummed up after 15 minutes, so they had to be cleaned.”

Other ships that were part of the exercise eventually came to Kootenay’s assistance, including Canada’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure.

Rocky Thorne, a cook aboard the Bonaventure, described what he saw as his vessel came alongside Kootenay.

“The side of the ship had completely mushroomed out — the metal — and there was smoldering stuff coming out,” Thorne said. “We started sending over (fire) attack teams because they were exhausted.”

Kootenay was eventually towed back to Portsmouth, U.K., where it was dry-docked. Its propellers were removed and the ship was towed to Halifax, where it arrived on Nov. 27, 1969.

Following repairs the vessel was re-commissioned in 1972 and it served on the West Coast until 1995. In November 2000 Kootenay was towed to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where it was sunk to become an artificial reef.

Its legacy remains the lasting improvements to firefighting and damage control practices in the navy following the disaster, along with the heroic actions of crew members credited with saving lives and the ship itself that day.

“A less professional crew could easily have finished the day off in life rafts,” Kootenay’s commanding officer Cmdr. Neil Norton later wrote of the disaster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2019.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

Navy Accident

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 1,731 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday

The province’s central zone has 992 active cases

Collin Orthner, manager at McBain Camera in downtown Red Deer, stands behind the store’s counter on Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
A few Red Deer businesses happy with Black Friday results

While this year’s Black Friday wasn’t as successful as it was in… Continue reading

Le Chateau Inc. is the latest Canadian firm to start producing personal protective equipment for health care workers, in a July 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Hundreds of millions of dollars for frontline workers yet to be released, says Alberta Federation of Labour

Information recently released by the Alberta Federation of Labour suggests more than… Continue reading

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Man killed in two-vehicle collision near Penhold, says Blackfalds RCMP

A 46-year-old man is dead following a two-vehicle collision on Highway 42… Continue reading

Banff National Park. (The Canadian Press)
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

EDMONTON — A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks… Continue reading

Cows on pasture at the University of Vermont dairy farm eat hay Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. Canadian dairy farmers are demanding compensation from the government because of losses to their industry they say have been caused by a series of international trade deals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lisa Rathke
Feds unveil more funding for dairy, poultry and egg farmers hurt by free trade deals

OTTAWA — Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Canada's top doctor says the country is still on a troubling track for new COVID-19 infections as case counts continue mounting in much of the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
COVID-19 cases in Canada remain on troubling course, Tam says, amid rising numbers

Canada’s top doctor says the country is still on a troubling track… Continue reading

hay
Hay’s Daze: Giraffe knows filling wishes can sometimes be a tall order

Last weekend, I had a lovely breakfast. “So what?” you may say.… Continue reading

A person enters a building as snow falls in Ottawa, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Ottawa has been successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 during its second wave thanks to the city’s residents who have been wearing masks and staying home, said Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
People to thank for Ottawa’s success with curbing COVID-19: health officer

The city’s chief medical officer said much of the credit goes to the people who live in Ottawa

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says tonight's public video gaming session with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is about reaching young people where they hang. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP leader stoked over ‘epic crossover’ in video gaming sesh with AOC

Singh and AOC discussed importance of universal pharmacare, political civility, a living wage

A south view of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf breaking apart is seen from Ward Hunt Island, Nunavut, in an Aug. 20, 2011, handout photo. The remote area in the northern reach of the Nunavut Territory, has seen ice cover shrink from over 4 metres thick in the 1950s to complete loss, according to scientists, during recent years of record warming. Scientists are urging the federal government to permanently protect a vast stretch of Canada's remotest High Arctic called the Last Ice Area. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-CEN/Laval University, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Scientists urge permanent protection of Last Ice Area in Canada’s High Arctic

Tuvaijuittuq has the thickest and oldest ice in the Arctic

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s $55 million Lotto Max jackpot

No winning ticket was sold for the $55 million jackpot in Friday… Continue reading

Most Read